Lessons from naval pilot training have resonance for leaders trying to build trust in an age of transformative technology.
As a young leader in the US Navy, I was given a role training new pilots to fly a multi-million dollar aircraft. It was an awesome responsibility and an experience that planted important seeds for success over a long career in uniform. Every training flight was a mini-crisis or series of mini-crises. I learned the value of a simple, stable framework for making decisions; of subsuming egos to mission success; and understanding what motivates your people.
These are lessons with enduring value. Disruptive crises, like Covid-19 and economic recessions, and transformative technologies, like big data, artificial intelligence, Bitcoin and others, challenge leaders to advance an organization’s growth and improve its culture. When leaders fail to invest the time to frame opportunities, empower employees and communicate the need for action or change, they often lose their teams before the game gets underway. It’s important to prepare for these disruptive and transformative challenges by having a reliable framework in mind, being willing to relinquish control, and staying focused on building trusting relationships across the organization.
In flying terms, leaders need to aviate, navigate and communicate.
The core role for the pilot is to take care of altitude and airspeed. In terms of business leadership, that means ensuring that there is a framework to guide strategy – what I call a rubric. A decision-making rubric centred on what’s important to the leader and the organization is vitally important to how organizations respond to those disruptive and transformative circumstances. The rubric that works for me is to view personal and organizational decisions through the lenses of trust, balance and stability (see Dialogue, Q1 2021).
I learned that the sooner I empowered student pilots, the sooner they became confident and safe. Learning to relinquish control and demonstrate a level of trust in students was a key moment in my development as a leader. This can be both personally liberating and energizing for the team – and moreover, it is nothing short of essential. Operating an aircraft in combat or in congested airspace cannot be done by the pilot alone. Navigation requires teamwork, with clear communications, situational awareness and calm.
These attributes work well in a crisis where it is critical to maintain the big picture as your team carries out the processes, operations and administrative functions needed to successfully navigate unforeseen challenges.
One of the most profound lessons of training new pilots is that relationships matter more than process – and that means communication is critical. I can’t imagine an instructor being effective without personal engagement. And just as I needed to build a relationship with students, so leaders need to invest in relationships with their teams.
Yet the longer the virtual workplace persists, the more stress emerges: remote working has knocked some people wholly off balance. Some of the stresses manifest within office settings; others are due to changes at home and the personal environment. After all, humans are social animals.
Leaders need to make changes to account for the hit to relationships from those traditional in-person interactions. As we begin to return to offices and places of work, either partially or wholly, one way to organize meetings is to think carefully about what is needed. Those that involve strategic decisions may be best suited to an in-person format, while those that are more process-related can be accomplished virtually.
Trust today and tomorrow
As the world begins to emerge from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is increasingly clear that those organizations which rallied to meet difficult circumstances with clarity were rewarded. The best engendered trust: among employees, and between the organization and its stakeholders, including customers, clients and other partners. But other organizations let themselves be defined by the pandemic. They have been left exposed, floundering on execution and losing their stakeholders right out of the gate.
That should be a warning to companies as they pursue visions of a technology-enabled and more digital future. Businesses are increasingly evolving towards a data-driven approach, implementing AI, and exploring the promise of blockchain for secure transactions. Adopting and implementing these tools are not only technical challenges. They require leaders to maintain trust within the organization and embrace what new technologies offer, in the face of the ‘this is how we always do it’ mentality and the resistance to change that is rooted in fear of disruption to jobs and livelihoods.
New pilots eventually learn to overcome vertigo by trusting their instruments. They are trained to ‘believe’ in their instruments – they don’t lie, and can save a plane from disaster if the pilot momentarily loses their bearings. In the high-pressure moments when disruption or crises hit, they can also serve to confirm intuition drawn from experience. Similarly, as new technologies are introduced in their organizations, leaders will need to learn to trust their instruments, and ensure their experience and gut feel for a situation doesn’t lead the organization or team down the wrong path – especially if the data points in a different direction.
At the same time, leaders should recognize that the uncertainty inherent in change can be deeply destabilizing. They must strive to make individuals more comfortable with new technology, through consistency in their actions and a predictable decision-making rubric that minimizes surprises and guesswork.
Central to whether organizations learn to fly with new concepts and technologies is the ability of leaders to bring stakeholders along on the journey, at a pace that neither stifles change nor leaves the larger team in the dust. Once leaders and organizations establish a predictable values-based way to view and navigate wicked problems and great opportunities, new challenges, processes and technology will be less daunting and disruptive. When the next crisis comes over the horizon, they will be best positioned to respond.
The challenges of providing a stable environment for employees and the organization, rebalancing in response to transformational technologies, and maintaining trust with employees, partners and customers, are defining leadership in the 21st century.
Bill Moran is a retired US Navy admiral, and a former vice-chief of naval operations and chief of naval personnel. He is now a strategic adviser to C-suite leaders.